Do you forgive? Being able to forgive is a virtue, but we all have our limits when it comes to people that have deeply hurt us. However, the path to the true healing of the soul always involves forgiveness.
Whenever the sorrows and pain from the past drag us down and do not let us continue with our normal life, we need to revisit the painful memory as many times as needed, until we manage to come to terms with it, accept reality, forgive, and move on.
The story of Thordis Elva, an Icelandic writer, playwright, journalist, and public speaker, and the man who raped her, Tom Stranger, from Australia, is one of the power of forgiveness. Twenty years after the assault, they have come together to tell it.
Back in 1996, Elva was 16, and her then-boyfriend, an Australian foreign exchange student, Tom Stranger, 18, sexually assaulted her. After the school’s Christmas ball, after dating for a ‘month or so’, Stranger took Elva home, as she has tried rum for the first time in her life.
He was her hero, “his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed.’
Yet, soon things got horrifying, and he ‘ proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me.”
Her body was too weak to fight back, but despite the pain, she managed to silently count 7,200 seconds on her alarm clock!
On the other hand, he explains:
‘I have vague memories of the next day, after-effects of drinking, a certain hollowness that I tried to stifle. Nothing more. But I didn’t show up at Thordis’s door. It is important to now state that I didn’t see my deed for what it was.
To be honest, I repudiated the entire act in the days afterward and when I was committing it. I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I’ve felt spine-bending guilt for.’
Thordis explains that “the only thing that could’ve stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me.”
“Far too often the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence and not the males who enact it. Far too often the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth.”
A few days later, they broke up, and Stranger returned to Australia.
Nine years later, Elva was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and wrote to him that she “wanted to find forgiveness.” She had suffered eating disorders, self-harmed, abused alcohol, and focused on over-achieving in order not to feel the urge to cope with the reality that she was raped.
Tom replied, explaining that he too had been trapped in a “silent prison,” and told no one about what happened then.
They started writing to each other, to ease their own suffering, and some 16 years after the rape, they agreed to meet in person, in Capetown, South Africa.
In their attempt to heal their own souls, they co-authored a book on the rape together, South of Forgiveness, that documents the emails the two sent to each other when they started the painful healing process.
They decided to challenge the stigma around rape, and discuss both sides of the same story, as a way to encourage rape victims and rapists to face the inner struggles they experience.
Therefore, Elva and Stranger gave a 19-minute-long Ted Talk together. They speak of the attitude of society to pity rape victims, but at the same time, to criticize them, for somehow “been asking for it.”
On the other hand, rapists are dehumanized and no one seems to have even little compassion for them. Both parties, the survivor and the rapist suppress their emotions after the experience, as society victimizes sexual assault survivors and judges the perpetrators.
“Labels are a way to organize concepts, but they can also be dehumanizing in their connotations. Once someone’s been deemed a victim, it’s that much easier to file them away as someone damaged, dishonored, less than. Likewise, when someone’s been deemed a rapist it’s that much easier to call them a monster, inhuman.”
Moreover, survivors keep blaming the one that raped them, and they become obsessed with the negative feelings and anger. All that negative energy actually hurts them in the end.
This is why we need to forgive and release the toxic energy.
They discussed things and found solace in talking about the painful experience. In the end, they felt compassion. For too long, Tom was too ashamed to face his actions and kept suppressing his feelings.
When he eventually opened up and realized he had to cope with them, he was surprised:
“I thought I’d buckle under the weight of responsibility and I thought my certificate of humanity would be burned. Instead, I was offered to really own what I did and found that it didn’t possess the entirety of who I am. Put simply, something you’ve done doesn’t have to constitute the sum of who you are.
Don’t underestimate the power of words. Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her.
But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it.’
“But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”
Here is the full video:
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